Whilst the world was celebrating World Anti-Narcotics Day on June 27 by organising seminars and conferences with loud woes of resolve to end the menace, in the south of Helmand province of Afghanistan Gul Bibi (18) was being sold to the local land owner as a ‘opium bride’ by her father for just a few thousand dollars. Her father was indebted to a land owner with a promise to repay at the harvest time. With the opium eradication drive by the government and allied forces, his field was also destroyed, leaving him nothing to pay back the loan. Opium flowers would continue to grow and multiply, till the spring of poverty, violation of human rights and deterioration of socio-economic situation of the natives would complete its interval in Afghanistan.
Despite the fact that there is forecast for a ‘shockingly high’ harvest for 2008 according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), anguish of the natives is magnifying without light at the end of the tunnel. Weak governance structures and corruption has led these menaces to stand larger than life in this ‘land of unruly’. Instead of providing relief to the people, the state has started slipping back to a point zero and moving towards a point of no return as the contemporary trends reflects. Much blame lies with Karzai’s ‘democratic’ government, which has done little to put an end to such practices and provide alternatives to the natives and try to win hearts and minds of people.
Afghanistan is in a flux today with ranking the world’s poorest of all countries – it ranks near the bottom of the UN’s human development index (174th out of 178 countries). It is also ranked the lowest on the human poverty index, is the largest exporter of the illicit drugs, reaching an estimated street value of $ 60 billion. According to the latest UNODC survey some of 3.3 million Afghans (14.3 percent of the population) are involved in opium cultivation. This does not include over 500,000 labourers and an unknown number of traffickers, warlords and officials. Poppies are grown just over four percent of Afghanistan’s arable land, the value of illicit drug income is huge, equalling over 52 percent of the country’s legal GDP in 2002 (compared with 24.4 percent for Burma/Myanmar and three percent for Colombia).
A careful analysis of the available data shows that the government’s GDP ratio is lowest to the illicit opium income production. What is much worst and disturbing is that opium production trend is not only upward but outward. Hence this has not only regional but global implications as well. As one observer once notes, “It is cheaper to engage in illegal activity in Afghanistan than almost anywhere in the world. However, Iraq is catching up. Having first followed Afghanistan’s lead in becoming a trans-national terrorism, Iraq is now starting to produce poppies.” An estimated of 500,000 Afghan families support themselves by raising poppies, according to UNODC. Last year, those growers received an estimated $ 1 billion for their crops – about $ 2,000 per household. With at least six members in the average family, opium growers’ per capita income is rough $ 300. The real profits go to the traffickers; their Taliban allies and the crooked officials’ who facilitate these ‘merchants of death’ to operate with liberty.
It is also very significant to understand the effects of narcotics trade and convergence of Afghanistan into a failed state as both are interlinked with weak governance, corruption, shaky state building efforts, fragile development, unstable security and counter insurgency efforts by the allied forces. One expert refers that if there would not be narcotics there would not be any of the Taliban. However, narcotics and its trade is not the only one reason for the state of chaos in Afghanistan today. It is a combination of multiple causes and major among all is that weak state structure and Karzai government’s failure to expand its control beyond certain regions. Karzai must realise that spitting venom for the state hosting millions of Afghan refugees for years would not serve the purpose, but he must put his own house in order.
In order to remove the menace from the very root, it is also very significant for Afghanistan to create the alternative livelihoods for farmers and people who are earlier generating their income from the narco-trade and money. This has been part of the national counter narcotics strategy which includes incentive scheme known as the ‘Good performance fund’ set up to reward villages for moving away from opium. Creating better infrastructure facilities like better irrigation system, transport infrastructures to those farmers, who grow other crops would do some good. Measurement of these sorts are necessary because other crops often face pitfalls such as the absence of distributors, inadequate domestic demands are few of the impediments that were causing the weak implementation of the counter narcotics strategy in the state.
Despite billions of dollars in foreign investment – the international community pledged an additional $ 20 billion at a donor conference in June – the coalition forces in Afghanistan and its government have failed to win over the people they are trying to protect. This means Afghanistan’s gains since the fall of the Taliban are fragile and are threatened by the insurgency, which continues to rage in the south. The government is weak, and there is little rule of law – local police is seen as scarcely more than ‘uniformed thieves’. Opium traffickers have a firm grip on the agricultural production of the province, providing credit, seeds and fertiliser to farmers, who have no other recourse than to grow the raw material for heroin – which in turn finances the insurgency.
Afghanistan’s rise as the major factor in contribution to the world’s illicit drug production is largely seen as a failure of the US policies for the country. After the removal of the Taliban regime in 2001, the drug eradication drive has largely been failed. A major obstacle in getting rid of opium production is the lack of coordination among law enforcement agencies operated upon by the US and its allies and the local warlords, whose major source of power lies with holding opium cultivatable land. Without much of the incentives for the farmers and workers has added of woes of the locals, thus created a larger factor resulting in the rise of the militancy and insurgency in the country.
Helmand is the biggest opium-producing region in the world and it is home to a Pashtun population that has historically resisted centralised rule. It is, says Chris Alexander, the UN’s deputy special representative in Afghanistan, “the place where the challenges that used to be nationwide have been swept like dead leaves into a pile.” There is a need for much broader and comprehensive counter narcotics approach that could eradicate the menace and provide the relief to the ordinary Afghan, who expects removal of crimes and dawn of the substantial security and development to the land. This requires much of the efforts from within society and the government while multifaceted policy of the international actors requires much of the effort. If we all fail to deliver, then it would tell little about Afghanistan but much about the world.
The writer works as Assistant Research Officer, Islamabad Policy Research Institute (IPRI)